In years gone by, the autumn internationals were viewed as the ideal opportunity to boost your world ranking.
Nowadays, head coaches prefer to give a few fringe players the chance to showcase their talent on the big stage – whilst offering a glimpse of full strength against the southern hemisphere’s strongest nations.
New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and South Africa were all involved this year and plenty of punters will fancy England to go on and retain the Six Nations title after winning all three of their fixtures. However, a tasty collision with the All Blacks will have to wait until 2018 and we won’t quite know how good Eddie Jones’ side is until they take on the best team in the business.
Wales, Scotland and Ireland will be looking to topple England next year and we could be in for a few shocks throughout the competition. Wales and Ireland, arguably the two nations most likely to defeat England, will expect to take full advantage of three home fixtures but a daunting trip to Twickenham awaits both. Scotland will host England this year but Gregor Townsend’s men face three difficult away fixtures. We assess all four nations below.
The emergence of Josh Navidi will have pleased Wales fans but Warren Gatland’s men need more than one or two players to step up and be counted. The 21-29 defeat to Australia was flattering for Wales – as was their narrow victory over union minnows Georgia. Credit where it is due, Wales gave the All Blacks a stern examination, but New Zealand’s class told in the end as Wales’ finishing let them down once again.
An unconvincing victory over South Africa in their final autumn international ensured that Wales finished with two wins from four games and Gatland knows that there is plenty of work to be done. On those performances, Wales could finish fourth or even fifth.
Vern Cotter’s departure hasn’t affected Scotland too badly – the Scots will be satisfied with their efforts in the autumn fixtures. Conceding 38 points to Samoa wasn’t ideal but scoring 44 points went down well with the fans. Townsend’s side were hard done by against New Zealand, eventually falling short by just five points. However, they followed up that defeat by putting 50 points on the board against an ill-disciplined Australia.
There is lots of optimism surrounding this Scotland side ahead of the 2018 Six Nations and with good reason. On another day, Townsend’s men could have edged past New Zealand and England will be wary of the Auld Enemy’s bid for glory next year.
Ireland are quite clearly the second-best nation in the northern hemisphere and Joe Schmidt will be fairly confident of giving England a real game at Twickenham. The scheduling gods have lined that fixture up for the final weekend in what could be a ‘winner takes all’ contest – and based on the autumn internationals, that sounds about right. Ireland won three out of three, although not all were in convincing fashion.
It got progressively worse for Ireland after their 38-3 thumping of South Africa in Week One; a three-point victory over Fiji was enough to satisfy fans before a 28-19 win over stubborn Argentina maintained their 100% record. Keep an eye on the Irish.
But on paper, England are the side to beat. With 23 wins in 24 fixtures under Jones, England are up there alongside New Zealand in the battle for top spot. A 21-8 win against Argentina came first before a 30-6 hammering of Australia – although the visitors were unfortunate to lose by that margin after playing well throughout. England then put 48 points on the board against Samoa despite making numerous changes during the series.
England’s strength in depth is ridiculous, there are at least two capable players at each position and Jones has a selection dilemma on his hands. Fortunately, this problem is a good problem and England fans will be quietly confident of securing another Grand Slam.